The Lipstick Revolution of the 1920s – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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The Lipstick Revolution of the 1920s

‘Times have brightened,’ writes one 1938 beauty commentator in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, as she reflects on how women of the past used to regard their faces.

Do you remember how as a young girl, you looked at your face in the mirror and wished that you had a differently shaped mouth, not to mention nose, teeth, ears, and hair? You used to believe that the only thing to do with your face was to be resigned to it.

Things had changed considerably, and this was in no little thanks to the liberation that lipstick afforded, when it finally entered the fashion mainstream during the 1920s.

‘The Lip-Stick’ by Léo Fontan | The Sketch | 4 April 1923

Comparatively cheap, and wonderfully colourful, lipstick finally gave women the power to makeup and express themselves. It was the hallmark of the modern woman, who was now unfettered to the shackles of outdated thinking that women ought to be ‘resigned’ to their appearance.

So in this special blog, we will explore the lipstick revolution of the 1920s, using articles, adverts and illustrations taken from our Archive. We will look at the products available, the trends of the day, as well as its detractors and its defenders.

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Changing the Cosmetic Habits of Women Everywhere

A quick dive into our Archive reveals the abundance of lipstick advertisements which had begun to appear throughout the 1920s. Take, for example, ‘Kissproof Lipstick,’ which is advertised by the Daily Mirror in October 1928.

One lady on horseback advises her friend (also on horseback) to ‘try Kissproof, my dear – you won’t need lipstick again to-day!’

Daily Mirror | 26 October 1928

Kissproof is described as the ‘modern waterproof lipstick,’ which is ‘changing the cosmetic habits of women everywhere.’ Promising not to stain handkerchiefs, teacups and cigarettes, like other ‘ordinary’ lipstick, it claimed to be ‘as permanent as the day is long!’

What is not stated in the advertising copy, although is plain in the brand name – is that this lipstick is kiss proof, suggesting that the woman wearing it will be free to kiss as many times (and perhaps as many men) as she likes. This lipstick therefore becomes a symbol of new found sexual freedom and liberation that women were beginning to enjoy in the 1920s.

Ultra-Modern Women and Their Unashamed Makeup

So what were the prevailing lipstick trends for women in the 1920s? A beauty specialist writing for the Yorkshire Evening Post in March 1928 states that ‘Cerise is the correct colour for lipstick,’ and that ‘practically no other colour is sold in Paris, though every other shade is offered from apricot down to a deep crimson that is almost purple.’

Meanwhile, the Coventry Evening Telegraph provides a glimpse of the ‘Church Parade Fashions’ on show at Hyde Park in May 1928. These ‘very young women’ had ‘smoothly powdered faces’ or ‘sunburn colouring,’ with ‘lips…carmined to matched a bright red buttonhole.’

‘The Puff Preliminary to the Watery Plunge’ | Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News | 4 July 1925

There was no doubt about it – the red lip was in and it was the hallmark of modernity. And not only were the women of the day embracing it – artists were too.

The Bystander in March 1928 describes the work of Dutch artist Kees van Dongen, who created sketches with ‘lip-rouge and eye make-up.’ The Sketch a couple of months later also features his work, stating him to be ‘famous as being the painter of ultra-modern women with their slender elegance, their look of quality, and their unashamed make-up.’

‘The Lipstick’ (painted in lipstick) by Kees van Dongen | The Sketch | 22 May 1929

‘From Masaccio to Mascara,’ The Bystander included this humorous depiction of the artist at work:

One afternoon Van Dongen gave a tea at his studio and one of his guests asked him to make a sketch of her. He borrowed her rouge, and off he started. So as not to make the tonality of the portrait monotonous, he ran around the studio borrowing other ladies’ lip-sticks. ‘I need a little Guerlain here,’ he said, ‘and I could use a little Chanel there.’

Danger – Lipstick!

But the lipstick revolution was not without its detractors, as some warned of the dangers of the popular beauty product. The Sunday Mirror in May 1927 contained a ‘doctor’s warning’ – that ‘the indiscriminate use of lipstick involved very real danger to health.’

One famous unnamed doctor told the newspaper ‘the brilliant scarlet effect…is obtained in many cases from mercury, and arsenic is also employed in producing the dyes.’

The Sketch | 23 October 1929

Meanwhile, the Nottingham Evening Post was quick to question a German ‘cosmetics claim,’ which stated that a German chemist had found ‘the secret of a lip-paste that will not leave tell-tale traces.’ According to Bond Street beauty specialists, such a concoction would be ‘anything but safe to use.’ 

No doubt with lingering anti-German feeling, some 10 years after the end of the First World War, the article goes on to explain that out of 200 lipsticks to be found in one West End drugs store, only one was sourced from Germany, and that ‘there was no guarantee that the German one would not come off.’

Vanity’s Baton – London Girls Ghastly

And so with the warnings of the dangers of lipstick, there were also the detractors of the product. Actress Jessie Matthews in 1927 comments how ‘London girls are too fond of applying the lipstick.’ According to the Gloucester Chronicle, Miss Matthews was of the opinion that ‘there is little or no reason for young girls to make up as they are doing. There is plenty of time to decorate after one has reached the age of thirty.’

Strangely enough, Jessie Matthews made these comments as she opened a ‘new beauty palace’ at Bayswater. But she was not alone in her views.

The Lady and the Lipstick – Vanity’s Baton – by William Ablett | The Sketch | 12 December 1923

Leonora Eyles, writing for the Daily Herald in 1928, reveals how she ‘hates lipstick,’ as it makes girls’ mouths ‘ugly:’

It must be very disconcerting for a young man to kiss a girl whose mouth looks like a large red cut across her face! Recently I noticed a lipsticked girl at tea. Every bite of her bread and butter or cake left a red imprint, and her cigarette end was also red, which had a peculiarly disgusting effect.

Eyles is of the opinion that the wearing of lipstick detracts from a women’s dignity, making ‘a terrible mess of the picture Nature has painted on one’s face.’

The Sketch | 29 May 1929

Some years later, one ‘disillusioned young man’ is writing to the Musselburgh News, complaining that ‘city girls’ have ‘faces like savages’ due to their use of lipstick and other makeup items. He describes seeing a girl on a train ‘like a cheap painted doll. Her mouth was just a wide slash of crimson, shapeless and ugly.’ He goes on to say that he did not know whether to laugh or to cry, and that she should even have been ‘locked up for indecent behaviour.’

Despite his outrage, this letter writer identifies that it is not the wearing of makeup that he objects to, rather the way that it is applied. Indeed, the Yorkshire Evening Post’s beauty specialist in 1928 states how ‘many crimes are committed with the lipstick,’ as she advises the proper way to makeup.

A Nuisance to Their Sex

Molly Drake in 1935, writing for the Mussleburgh News, states how ‘Women who use make-up badly are a nuisance to their sex. Actually few men object to make-up when used discreetly; it is its abuse that rouses their ire.’

But help was on hand for women who did not know how to use the new beauty tools at their disposal. The Dundee Courier in December 1929 advertises ‘Lectures and Demonstrations of How to Apply Powder, Rouge and Lipstick.’ You could learn how to makeup for any occasion, avoiding the much-lamented makeup disasters as described by that particularly petulant ‘disillusioned young man.’

Dundee Courier | 10 December 1929

Meanwhile, advertisers tried to convince their audiences of the naturalness of their product, perhaps in the face of such detraction. One particular advancement in lipstick is described in 1936, which ‘Actually Matches the Colour of Human Blood.’

This Louis Phillipe advert, appearing in the Daily Mirror, sounds rather vampiric, offering itself as ‘the first make-up…yet discovered that actually matches the warm, pulsating colour of the human blood.’ It is also all over the place in what its lipstick offers – naturalness, temptation, or virginity?

Daily Mirror | 17 April 1936

In its allure, it is typically, wickedly of Paris. In its virginal modesty, as natural as a jeune fille – ravishing, without revealing!

Artistry and Charity – Lipstick Defended

Despite its detractors, the fashion for colourful lipstick prevailed, and it found defenders in the most unlikely of places. In 1933, the Rev. A. Wellesley Orr of the parish of Kingston Hill, defended makeup as ‘a demonstration of women’s artistry,’ as reported in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail:

I am bound to confess that in no other parish in no other county have I seen such a splash of artistic beauty as I am privileged to see here. I am compelled to admit that, although some of that beauty is not natural, yet it is the result of the fact that a woman is naturally artistic, and, not wasting her time competing with stupid men upon canvas in oils or water-colours, prefers to use the skin of her own face.

Before and after the application of makeup | The Sphere | 15 October 1932

Another man of God was also defending the use of makeup, albeit in a slightly different way. Roman Catholic priest the Very Rev. Owen Francis Dudley described the use of makeup as an ‘act of charity,’ as reported in the Western Morning News, for ‘in a general way most faces need occasional decoration and repairing.’

But the use of makeup and lipstick was a women’s revolution, so it is only right that we concentrate now on the female defence of the new fashion.

In 1929 Mr Justice Rigby Swift caused an outrage when he ‘supposed,’ during a breach of promise case for a broken engagement, that ‘a man engaged to a girl has the right to tell her that she must not wear powder or lipstick.’

Esther Ralston has her makeup applied | The Sphere | 15 October 1932

The case had been brought about by a young man’s ‘objection to his fiancée’s lipstick and face colouring,’ as reported in the Gloucester Citizen. The judge sided with the young man – to the disdain of women everywhere.

‘No girl objects to a man shaving to improve his appearance,’ said one of ten London girls who were interviewed today by a Press Association reporter, ‘so why should they object to our lipstick and powder? Let my Jim try it.’

Meanwhile one typist exclaimed that she had ‘never heard of such a thing…My young man was no more right to tell me not to use powder and lipstick than I have not to tell him he musn’t use brilliantine or scented soap.’

Perhaps the final word on this should go to Miss Fannie Ward, a 61-year-old Flapper:

I think a girl has every right to use powder and lipstick. What she does to enhance her beauty is no business of her young man. We know young men don’t like powder and lipstick judging by the fuss they make. But what does that matter.

Marie Burke’s makeup is ‘touched-up’ | The Sphere | 15 October 1932

And even some hundred years later, men still complain about women’s use of makeup. But Fannie Ward’s sentiments remain as true as ever, for women in the 1920s were not using makeup for men, but for themselves, for their self-expression, in a way that they had never been able to before. And makeup now remains that great enabler for men and women across the world, and we owe that to the trailblazers of the 1920s and 1930s who carried on wearing what they wanted to wear on their faces despite the detractors, and fuelled the lipstick revolution that is seminal in the both the history of makeup and fashion, but also in that of the history of women’s rights.

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